Apple outlined several new features at WWDC on Monday that will arrive with iOS 5 later this fall, which address some of my own issues with the platform. There are a number of similarities to functions from other mobile operating systems, but that shouldn’t surprise, based on this Steve Jobs quote from 1997’s Apple developer event: “If we can be much better without being different, that’d be fine with me.”
I migrated to Android when it became mature enough for me. That was in January 2010, with the purchase of a then-cutting-edge Nexus One handset, complete with Android 2.1. I was enthralled with the nearly unlimited personalization options as well as the support for — perhaps even encouragement of — custom ROMs, that unlock a device sort of like jailbreaking does for an iPhone. It wasn’t until then that I realized how little I cared for the iPhone’s notification system, and how much I appreciated the deep integration of third-party apps in Android. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I’ve been using Google services full-time for several years, in which case, Android provides me a better experience.
In general though, I’m impressed with what Apple has done. I don’t think it’s enough to sway me back to using iOS full-time, but it’s darn close. Here’s why, from the standpoint of someone who has used Android phones for the past 1.5 years, while supplementing the experience with an iPad and iPod touch.
Notifications are no longer disruptive
Yes, they may look and work just like Android, but the new iOS 5 notifications fix the age-old problem of being too disruptive and difficult to manage. They appear on the iOS lock screen, where you can swipe to unlock the device and go directly to the app that notified, and they appear in a list instead of just one at a time. In a way, this is similar to HTC’s Active Lockscreen I showed Monday on video, but much more powerful, since HTC’s version is limited to four specific apps of the user’s choosing. It can’t display notifications on the lock screen, either.
By building the Notification Center window-shade, iOS 5 allows notifications to appear briefly, then disappear on their own, which is far less disruptive. And since such notifications aren’t lost forever, users can manage them when they see fit, not when iOS does. It’s a much more elegant and effective system: Precisely like Android’s, with the added benefit of notification management from the lock screen. I would like to see a way to clear all notifications with one tap, however.
Twitter integration is a start, but…
One of the Android features that iOS users may not be aware of is how Android integrates third-party apps for sharing. Google’s platform does this natively. Once an app such as Twitter, Facebook, or Flickr is installed, it immediately shows up in the list of share options for photos, the browser, or Google Maps, for example. No additional input from the user is required.
Apple has taken a step in this direction by adding Twitter integration in iOS 5, and while it’s welcome, it’s just a start. For other sharing services, users will have to install bookmarklets or turn to email. That lack of integration caused me to add a Flicker upload email address as a contact to my iPhone in the past. Since there was no way to share photos with Flickr directly, I had to come up with a workaround. My hope is that as iOS matures, the sharing options are less controlled by the operating system, and are simply enabled through the installation of third-party apps.
Music in the cloud sounds great
When I called for music collections in the cloud two Decembers ago, I was summarily dismissed, but a billion dollar data center and 18 months of time heals all wounds. Apple’s new iCloud service will store music purchases and enable downloads to devices on demand; you can already get a look at the service on current iOS devices. In fact, I did just that, and found a few albums that got lost in the shuffle as I’ve moved between various computers over the years. Thanks to the new feature, I regained those albums purchased prior through iTunes.
Both Google and Amazon recently started similar services for Android devices, and I’ve taken full advantage of each. One benefit over iCloud is that both are hybrid services: Your music is stored on the web but can also be streamed as needed — handy for when you’re low on storage. Since Amazon couples its Cloud Player with its Amazon MP3 store, I’ve chosen that over Google Music for now. Still, iOS 5 comes close to parity with iCloud and support for iTunes on Apple’s servers. And kudos to Apple for iTunes Match, the service that adds your ripped music to the cloud without requiring uploads. It’s a safe bet that Apple worked this feature out with the recording labels while Amazon and Google didn’t, a very likely reason why both currently require you to upload your music collection before you can access it.
Wireless sync for all
Speaking of music, native synchronization with iTunes is welcome in iOS 5. As an Android owner, I almost never sync my phone to a computer; at least not with a cable. Instead, I’ve relied upon doubleTwist, which can shoot, playlists, music and video files from a computer to an Android phone over Wi-Fi. The software added support for wireless streaming and AirPlay as well, making it a full-featured solution.
Given that history, I really don’t like connecting my iPod touch or my iPad to a computer for syncing. That goes away with iOS 5 and a new version of iTunes. Gone, too, is the computer from the setup equation for iOS 5. Instead of connecting a new device to the computer for setup and sync, iOS 5 will support direct setup over a wireless network, akin to how Google Android devices have worked since launching in 2008.
iMessage or Google Voice?
I haven’t used BlackBerry’s Messenger service extensively, but iMessage in iOS appears extremely similar. It’s almost a cross between text messaging and IM, complete with read receipts if desired and activity icons to see when the other party is typing. While that sounds great, it illustrates why I never used BBM: The service has always been limited to BlackBerry devices. Apple’s iMessage has the same limitation with support for iOS-to-iOS communications through Apple servers, although it’s supplemented by standard text messaging on the iPhone.
iMessage is sort of like my current setup with Google Talk and Google Voice. I use Google Talk on my handset, but also within iChat on OS X via a Jabber configuration. And Google Voice has been my go-to text messaging service for well over a year. No matter what device I’m using — mobile or desktop — I can send and receive free text messages to any phone on any platform. Apple’s iMessage still looks appealing however, as it integrates FaceTime and email options in a conversation. Of course, I’d like FaceTime much better if Apple had worked to make it an open standard by now, as promised during the service launch.
How compelling is iOS 5 for Android users?
I’m a huge believer in using the right tool for the task, especially when it comes to personal decisions about mobile devices and platforms. That’s why in the past three years, I’ve personally bought phones that run iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, and webOS. Many of the reasons I looked away from iOS and toward Android have been addressed by iOS 5. And to be honest, it really doesn’t matter to me who created a feature or function vs. who might have copied or borrowed heavily. At the end of the day, if the smartphone is improved and meets my needs, that’s all that counts.
Will I switch from being primarily an Android phone owner to one who uses an iPhone? That depends on few things, and although I didn’t cover all of the new iOS 5 features, there’s much to like.
I’m not sure I can live without the useful widgets that Android supports, but perhaps that’s a feature Apple is still working on with iOS 5. Hardware, too, will play a part in my decision; the next iPhone is sure to have a dual core processor and improve in other ways, but I still think there’s room for a 4-inch iPhone, and I prefer a larger screen. I’m also not sure I want to give up Google Maps navigation and I had hoped that improved voice recognition that rivals Android’s would appear in iOS 5.
Regardless of my future phone choice, even as a heavy Android phone and tablet user, iOS 5 looks to offer an improved experience that’s worth strong consideration. And strong consideration is what I’ll give the next iPhone, whenever it happens to be announced, because there’s room for several great mobile platforms in the growing smartphone space.